Between the World and Me is a shaking account of the ways in which America systematically dehumanizes black people, written as a letter from Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates to his teenage son, Samori. Coates describes whiteness as part of a Dream (capitalization his), one made possible through the creation of race as a concept and categorization scheme. The people who, in Coates’ terms, “believe that they are white” are, as a result, afforded the privilege of taking for granted that their children will be perpetually safe, that laws and law enforcers will dutifully protect them, and that a certain degree of comfort is an inalienable right. He talks about entitlement not in terms of “white privilege” but an American myth, the one responsible not only for centuries of enslavement but for the ensuing public policy that has shaped American life as a direct result of this deliberately crafted belief in the organic existence of race. Only in a world in which race is ontologically established could a myth then follow in which some people, designated as black, are inherently lower than those who, in order to perpetuate this myth, necessarily believe that they are white.
Coates’ writing is visceral, eloquent, and — most of the time — fearless. He is eager to debunk the myths that keep America comfortably distant from the bigotry underlying its own actions and deep-seated ideologies. At the same time, he is forthcoming about having erred in his youthful assertions that the antidote to the American myth should be a counter-myth, one redolent with the enduring majesty of African culture, ritual, royalty. “The air of that time,” he says of his late teens, “was charged with the call for a return, to old things, to something essential, to some part of us that had been left behind in the mad dash out of the past and into America . . . Perhaps we should return to ourselves, to our own primordial streets, to our ruggedness, to our own rude hair. Perhaps we should return to Mecca.”
For Coates, the Mecca “was, is, and ever shall be” the historically black Howard University. His arrival there awakened him to the existence of galaxies outside of the two worlds he knew: the brutal world of Baltimore, in which violent death at a young age was more of a certainty than a risk, and the incomprehensibly serene and subdued world of white suburbia, glimpses of which he had gotten from television. Growing up, he had felt alienated from both of the worlds that he was sure comprised all of existence: the street, which he knew out of necessity how to navigate but, in his intellectual curiosity and voracious reading habits, always felt apart from, and that other world, the safe world made by and for the people who believe they are white. Howard University was the first place that ever showed Coates where he belonged: on a vibrant campus filled with people whose eyes were neither clouded with the hidden fear of the streets nor with the hazy film of the Dream. The sense of being liberated was not one that Coates had ever experienced in any kind of sustained way outside of libraries. Liberation with other people is what Howard University gave him.
There, too, he learned to let go of the myths of Black Nationalism that had sustained him in his youth. History, he found, in all of its bewildering human complexity, will never be understood through myth. Only an unrelenting grip on reality can challenge the Dream, and at Howard, he developed a hunger for observation and detail that has doubtless been an integral part of his development as a singular journalist.
It is disappointing, then, that Coates fails to describe the young women in Between the World and Me in anything other than the language of myth, with none of the humanity that Coates himself deems critical to understanding. Maybe this is an artifact of his relatively little experience in descriptive prose as compared to his journalistic output. But, given his lively, vivid, and fully fleshed-out accounts of the older women in his life — notably mothers — it’s disconcerting that while we can picture in detail the beautiful women who so affected him at Howard and come to understand deeply the life lessons they taught him, we learn almost nothing about these women as people. He doesn’t tell us what they studied, what their passions were, what they might have argued with him about; we only get rapturous passages that, unfortunately for so vital a writer, reinforce the mythic notion that women are representations of those elusive ideals which improve and enlighten men. About someone whom the reader knows only as “a lovely woman from California who was then in the habit of floating over campus in a long skirt and head wrap,” Coates tells us:
I know now what she was to me — the first glimpse of a space-bridge, a wormhole, a galactic portal off this bound and blind planet. She had seen other worlds, and she held the lineage of other worlds, spectacularly, in the vessel of her black body.
The absence of adult reflection on this youthful idealization is disturbing. Certainly he can’t be faulted for remembering, in a haze of wonder and excitement, what it felt like to encounter a woman whose very genetic makeup reflected corners of the world that had been beyond his conception before he stepped “out on the Yard” at Howard University, where students from so many nations gathered. But in a letter to his teenage son, one would hope that some caution would be included, too. Coates lovingly tells his son, “You are human and you will make mistakes. You will misjudge. You will yell. You will drink too much. You will hang out with people you shouldn’t.” It would have been a welcome balance to add, somewhere in the book, that the women his son comes to love will also do the same things. That women are flawed, that they are not merely representations of what one has always wanted or never knew they needed. That even the most intoxicating human you meet is no more in reality transcendent than you are.
There is no suggestion of any human weaknesses that might have coursed within these extraordinary women in the same way that their beauty, their talents, or their expansive understanding of love did. Coates’ reverence rings with ironically dehumanizing awe. “Ladies loved him,” he writes of an old friend, “and what a place to be loved, for it was said, we certainly believed it to be true, that nowhere on Earth could one find a more beautiful assembly of women than on Howard University’s Yard.”
Coates didn’t finish his degree at Howard, and his narration of this moment in his life marks one of only a few places in the book in which he turns, seemingly self-consciously, away from the intimate, vulnerable writing that so remarkably characterizes other passages. “I knew it was time to go,” he says, “to declare myself a graduate of the Mecca, if not the University,” but he neglects to tell us, and his son, exactly how he knew this. His career as a journalist was starting to take hold at that time, but we’re still left wondering why Coates chose to drop out of a college that he portrays as essentially perfect and that he clearly reveres to this day.
Similarly, Coates avoids getting too personal when he talks about his relationship to one of the defining elements of black culture — insofar as there exists a coherent black culture — dance. “I almost never danced,” he says, “as much as I wanted to. I was crippled by some childhood fear of my own body.” Immediately, he goes on to explain why it so moved him emotionally to watch other black people dance, to understand that a whole club of people was taking, and gorgeously displaying, a control of their own bodies that was actively denied to them outside the clubs. But there is something missing from this passage that follows such a striking admission of his own unexplored fear. Throughout the book, Coates reflects on the experience of having a crippling fear for one’s own body, the kind that comes from growing up knowing that you live in a violent world. But this fear of his own body he never explains, and I can’t help but wish he had given his son that chapter, or even that he’d write that book.
Something about his depiction of his first trip to France does allow for that vulnerability. Most of Coates’ discussions of history and its continuing impact on the present are ideas that the readers of his journalistic work will be readily familiar with. But in his account of that first trip to France, the reader sees Coates thinking and observing, not as someone who is aware that he is a writer, but as someone who has been given a wholly foreign glimpse of his own humanity in a culture previously unknown to him. He’s a stranger here — a fact that is everywhere evident — but he’s not in danger. The sheer force of this realization changes his life, and this transformation is incredibly powerful to experience vicariously as a reader.
This book could be more vulnerable; it need not, as some have suggested, be less bleak. That such a word has been used so often to describe Between the World and Me bears witness to just how necessary it is for all of us to dismantle the Dream. “Bleak” is the sort of word the Dream employs in the service of making reality appear more cheerful. It connotes lifelessness and despair, but Coates’ writing is, in contrast, vital and defiant, coursing with fury that he has long since accepted as a necessary part of seeing the world as it is, something inextricable from the love, the gratitude, the generosity that pervades his writing as a result of expressing this fury, not in spite of it.
A turning point in his understanding of his own rage came when one of Coates’ fellow Howard students, Prince Jones, was murdered by police on the way to see his fiancée. Jones, Coates tells us, was the “patron saint of ‘twice as good,’” not only a remarkably accomplished student, but a born-again Christian. At Jones’ funeral, at which the mourners forgive the killer, Coates’ own appreciation for being raised without religion is newly ignited. Religion, he asserts, blunts the edge of the real injustice that undercuts too much of human action. While Coates writes with palpable respect for those who find strength and comfort in religion, he is also grateful for the questions he was always raised to ask, the narratives he was never told to accept.
“I could see no higher purpose in Prince’s death,” he writes. “I believe, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” This is why he cannot stand for the passive acceptance of the denigration of a human being: Destruction to the human body is, literally, destruction to the human spirit. Ta-Nehisi Coates does not write to blunt edges. He writes so that it might be possible to slice away the protective illusions that obscure the brutal reality of blackness in America.
Sarah Neilson is a freelance editor in Boston. She writes a column for Full Stop on America’s emotional condition, and is on Twitter @sarahmneilson.
This piece originally appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly Issue #2. The Quarterly is available to download or subscribe here.